‘Oh Teacher Karen, I feel so bad’ came the words as I headed into one of our Friday teacher development sessions. My heart sank. What could have happened now? Each week brought numerous setbacks and issues around the teachers I was working with, many unrelated to the teachers themselves. School principals commenting on noisy classrooms, the teachers not following the ‘expected’ classroom teaching where the teacher is the focus of the classroom whilst learners are passive receptors. Lesson plans not conforming to an impossibly complex format, teachers being expected to match competency outcomes to tasks way above the learners’ actual level. Just a few of the difficulties of working in a system with an emphasis on forms and testing rather than a more learner-centred environment where learners play an active role in their learning.
‘What happened?’ I asked Mrs Du, slight intrepidation creeping into my voice. ‘I am so sorry for all my learners from before.’ she said.
She started to explain that she had done an activity in class that had worked well and had thought about the lesson a lot over the week. She had come to the realisation that becoming a more learner-centred teacher was working. She explained that she knew she was supposed to teach in a more communicative way but had not known where to start. It had all seemed so difficult. She could now compare her previous experience of a teacher-centred approach with a learner-centred approach and could see how the latter was both effective and motivating. Not only that but she was able to see how manageable it was.
So how did we get there? And more importantly how did both Mrs Du and I know that she had come such a long way on her journey of teaching development.
In the first weeks of working with Mrs Du, I got permission from her to take photos of her classroom with the solemn promise that they would not be shown outside our group of teachers. I took photos of where she stood in the classroom, the layout of the classroom and photos of what the learners were doing. I also took photos of some of the positive things going on in class, because there is always something good to find, such as pictures on the wall or neat writing on the board.
At the beginning I didn’t show Mrs Du any of the photos unless they were positive. I kept the photos which illustrated less learner-centred practices for later discussion. When Mrs Du did something differently or was trying out a new technique, I took a photo. I could then use these photos to compare them to the photos I had kept back.
For example, when Mrs Du walked to the back of the class, or moved towards groups of learners, I captured this on camera. I then showed her the photos of when she was predominantly teaching from the front of the class compared to moving around the classroom. I took photos of learners with their heads together, engaged in their learning. Photos of a smile, an excited showing of their work. I compared this with photos I had taken of the learners looking distracted, copying from their friends, or not completing the exercises.
This visual comparison illustrated the difference between what a teacher-centred and learner-centred classroom looks like from both the teacher’s and learner’s point of view. Seeing the before and after photos helped Mrs Du believe in herself and gave her a huge boost of confidence. It also enabled us both to measure progress.
It is worth noting at this point that careful consideration needs to go into what photos are taken and what photos are used for the comparison. The photos need to illustrate a positive, visible change that is concrete and specific.
How does this fit into the British Council’s CPD Framework for Teacher Educators? One of the areas in the framework is ‘Monitoring teacher potential and performance’. This is an important area of teacher development, as it looks at what tools are available to us as teacher educators and how we can use these tools to not only develop the teachers we work with but ourselves as educators.
One of the elements under this competency is:
Demonstrating familiarity with a range of tools for evaluating teachers in order to make decisions to support teacher learning.
Using photos and video helped me as a teacher educator to measure change in the classroom. It also helped me identify areas that still needed work. However, in order for this technique to work, there needs to be a strong bond of trust between the teacher educator and the teachers. I built this up gradually, ensuring I had full support and agreement from the teachers before taking photos in the classroom. I was also very careful about taking photos of the learners and tried not to take photos of faces. I encouraged the teachers I was working with to take photos and videos of me in the training sessions as well as when I was teaching in schools, again with the permission of the school Head and the learners.
I was also very specific in what I took photos of. I needed photos that illustrated change and development. When I first started capturing classroom moments, I discovered that some of the photos I had taken were not suitable for the purposes of visual change. Over time, I became better at identifying the visible moments that I could capture.
So what other tools do we, as teacher educators have at our disposal in order to monitor teacher potential and performance?
When I first started working with Mrs Du, I gave all the teachers a blank notebook. I wrote an introductory letter to each teacher, outlining my teaching experience with a short description of my formative teaching years. I often included an anecdote of a situation where things hadn’t gone according to plan in my classes. I ended the journal entry with a few questions about their careers, more to prompt ideas for writing rather than to explicitly gather any information. I asked them to reply to me, introducing themselves and write about something they would like to develop in their teaching.
Each week, we wrote to each other. I asked questions and encouraged the teachers to reflect on their own teaching. I included examples from my own teaching in my replies as well as incorporating aspects of my personal life to generate a more peer-to-peer relationship rather than teacher educator-to-teacher.
We never mentioned the content of the journals in class as the dialogue was a private, one-to-one conversation between us both.
After a few months of weekly writing, I looked back at the initial entries. I asked the teachers to look back at their initial entries too. Not only was the teachers’ language improving through the weekly writing, but so too were their ideas and thoughts about teaching. For example, Mrs Du wrote about how she had started noticing the learners at the back of the class. She commented on how she felt when learners put their heads together and worked as a group. She noticed that the learners seemed happier in class and above all, that attendance had improved.
I noticed that our connection and trust was stronger as a result of the journal writing because we were sharing personal thoughts and feelings. By writing in the journal, there was time to think and organise thoughts. We shared a lot in those journals and while they were an invaluable tool for measuring performance, they also helped build a strong two-way bond between myself and teacher.
While observation might be what initially comes to mind when thinking about measuring teacher potential and performance, there are other tools at our disposal. I have mentioned two tools that I have used, photos and journal writing.
What tools do you use to monitor teacher performance, other than observation?
Ask a teacher you mentor to draw a diagram of three ways teachers and learners can interact in the classroom. This could be whole class explanation, pair work, group work and learners feeding back to the teacher.
Encourage the teachers to try one of these ways in their own classroom. Visit them in their classroom when they try one of these ways of interacting. Take photos of this interaction. Take photos of how the learners react to the interaction. Take photos of the interaction between the teacher and learner or between the learners but also take photos of the rest of the class. This can help the teacher notice the rest of the class.
Show the photos to the teacher after the lesson. These photos can help build confidence when a teacher is trying something new.
Start a journal with a teacher you mentor. Here are some guidelines for a continued exchange:
Give the teacher a notebook. Write a short introductory letter at the beginning of the notebook. This can include:
- something about yourself
- how you developed as a teacher – a short anecdote about your early teaching career questions for the teacher to answer
- What do you enjoy most about teaching?
- What did you teach last week?
- How did the lesson go?
- Describe one of the classes you enjoy teaching.
Set a regular time for the teacher to return the notebook to you. Agree on a day that you will reply by.
In the next letter, describe a lesson you taught where you wanted to develop a skill. Describe how you did this.
Ask the teacher what they would like to develop.
Offer some suggestions or ask the teacher how they would like to develop. They might have some ideas they would like to work on.
Make sure you don’t talk about the journal entries when you meet face-to-face. This helps keep the writing confidential.
Continue writing to each other weekly.
After four or five exchanges, ask the teacher if they have noticed any changes in their classes or learners.
About the author
From her first group of learners in 1991 in Athens, Greece, Karen Waterston has taught Young Learners, Teenagers, Adults, Business and Academic English and exam preparation classes. Karen started working with teachers in Senegal in 2001 and has worked with teachers on four continents, learning all the time. Karen has a Master’s degree in ELT and Educational Technology. She is particularly interested in the teaching moments that create change.